Amanda Cohen knew she’d have to eventually relocate from her pocket-size premises on East 9th Street once she got so busy that all nine two-tops were booked two months in advance — even those undesirable 5:30 and 10:30 p.m. slots. “Every review would start the same way,” she says. “‘I had to wait two months for a reservation … ’.” The heightened expectations that accompany that sort of demand can crush a small, casual restaurant, one that couldn’t even open for lunch since the seven-person staff used the dining room to accept deliveries and prep for dinner. But Cohen didn’t want to lose the restaurant’s homey intimacy in the move from 18 to 56 seats, or sacrifice the diners’ view of the chef and the kitchen (or the cooks’ view of the outside world). So her search for a new home led her to an extra-wide storefront on the Lower East Side, a former Chinatown travel agency that she has outfitted with an open kitchen and, in the basement, a walk-in fridge and enough space to finally enable her to buy produce by the case instead of the pound or even the piece.
Produce, of course, is the core of Cohen’s vegetable cuisine, and for the last six years, she’s been pushing the limits of what one can do with the lowliest crucifer or humdrum root. More than an expanded dining room, the chef-owner is excited about a larger staff, which now includes a bartender and a pastry chef, and new kitchen equipment, like the sous-vide machine and homogenizer that allow her to concoct more elaborate dishes with the variously textured and flavored multiple components that define her cooking. Consider, for instance, the kale-matzo-ball soup, which combines what Cohen calls “two superfoods,” kale and matzo balls, plus a poached egg, stir-fried vegetables, and okra seeds pickled in a seaweed-salt brine. Cohen bakes her own carta di musica, or Sardinian-style flatbread, and tops it with yogurt caramelized in the pressure cooker, fennel cooked three ways, wild arugula, and bean sausage with a fennel-seed flavor profile. (“I have yet to discover a vegetarian [sausage] casing,” says Cohen. “That’s my next mission.”)
Two weeks in the Yucatán this summer at the Cook it Raw culinary conference inspired Cohen’s carrot waffle with peanut mole sauce and “pulled, pickled, and jerked” carrots, as well as the large-format Brussels sprout tacos, served on a hot stone with lettuce-leaf wraps and all the fixings. At the new Dirt Candy, there’s spinach in the puff pastry, parsley in the spaetzle, and even onion in the chocolate tart — in caramelized, dehydrated, candied form. But the biggest innovation comes at the end of the meal, with the check. Cohen has decided to replace tipping with an administrative fee of 20 percent, which enables her to raise the wages of historically underpaid dishwashers and cooks, and to guarantee a consistent salary for servers, regardless of whether or not it’s busy.
The new Dirt Candy opens tomorrow for dinner, and will eventually expand to brunch and lunch service. The wine is small production and often natural; the cocktails classic, with the exception of the house drink, a pickleback of vodka and beet-pickling liquid that was formerly the celebratory post-shift staff drink. Here, a look at the space, and some of the food and drink.
86 Allen St., nr. Broome St.; 212-228-7732